This is Your Mind on Social Media: Sitting at the Consciousness Explorers Club

 

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I’ve been curious to check out the Consciousness Explorers Club since I caught the CEC’s President, Jeff Warren on TVO as part of a panel discussion on Mindfulness and Mental Health on the Agenda. Here was a smart journalist and advocate for mindfulness, heading up a progressive, secular group right here in Toronto. My curiosity was piqued so I Googled them.

CEC’s website was an unexpected breath of fresh air. It wins hands down as the funniest site I’ve ever seen for a meditation group. A quick read of the collective’s self-deprecating bios offered more than a few chuckles. they’re a sort of merry band of accomplished, creative, socially aware people –  an emergency room doctor, another writer, theatre and film artists, and a philosopher – who take meditation, but not themselves, quite seriously.

The Experience

I’d wanted to try a CEC session out for some time. When the November listing of their Monday night explorations (more on those below) included a ‘Technology and Attention’ session that  included interactive meditation practice with smartphones, I couldn’t resist. It was like the universe sent me a text.

So I put on some comfortable pants and pedaled west to College Street’s ‘oh so hip’ Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre to sit circle with the tribe.

I wasn’t disappointed.

By its description and demographic, the experience could have turned out to be a self-indulgent co-opting of a non-European spiritual tradition by young urban professionals.

It wasn’t like that at all. The crowd was young and hip, but the room was free of pretension, and the session was authentic and uplifting.

The energy in the room was palpable.  In contrast to the quiet you experience when arriving in a more conventional meditation setting, the  chatter as the group began setting up had the energy of a first day of school. However, all was quiet when the practice began.

Monday night explorations are divided into two 45-minute parts: a (guided) sitting meditation practice, followed by ‘interactive practice, play and discussion’.

For me, forty-five minutes is quite long at this early stage of starting to meditate, but the guide helped me adjust the breath and posture to increase alertness and energy.  I won’t pretend I achieved complete stillness.  I struggled with acute pins and needles in my right leg, but I did manage a respectable degree of concentration.   The guided session ended with a short loving kindness meditation, as I gather is the CEC norm.

The interactive practice, “Addicted to Dopamine”, part of a November program of sessions exploring trance. In this session, participants were asked to observe the effects of their interactions with their ‘personal hypnosis devices – AKA their smartphones’.

From the program description: “Have you ever really paid attention to inside experience of texting and emailing and surfing? That’s what we’ll do here. Surf the dopamine hits. And maybe get a little insight about the compulsive nature of our collective tech-habit.”

The smartphone exercise was followed by group discussion about people’s relationship with technology and how it affects well-being.  Themes that came out in discussion included physical and emotional reactions to communication, differences in relationship to technology between generations, and how technology manipulates our neural reward system for commercial purposes.

One of the reasons I’ve taking up meditation is to counter the mental effects I experience from digital/social information overload,  and these are becoming a hot topic for researchers.  Here’s one psychologist’s discussion of social media’s effects on attention span, and the neurological impacts of multitasking – curious to hear about other people’s perspectives.

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To wrap up, CEC was a truly positive mindfulness experience in a really unique context.  I’d describe it as applied mindfulness (a term Warren used on the TVO panel), combining a flexible approach to practice with a unique opportunity for thoughtful, interactive engagement.

Where
Octopus Garden Yoga
967 College Street (West of Dovercourt)

When

  • Monday nights, 7:25 pm
  • $12 fee (to cover space, teaching and programming)

Offerings

Monday Night Explorations

Other programming includes:

The Tradition

CEC describes itself as “a non-profit meditative think-tank and community hub that supports personal growth through carefully curated courses, retreats, events, and weekly guided meditation and social practices.” With a humanistic and pluralistic outlook, they integrate insight and practices from contemporary culture and science with those from contemplative traditions, in particular mindfulness. Jeff Warren trained with Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young.

Learn more

Photo credits:

Cosmic Fingerpost by hartwigHKDCC BY 2.0

Facebook Burnout by mkhmarketing – CC BY 2.0

Practice Makes Imperfect (and that’s OK)

Meditation Sticker

It’s been a full two weeks since taking on the challenge of adding a mindfulness practice into my daily routine, and the benefits so far are subtle, but tangible. I’m definitely feeling motivated enough to pursue a more substantial practice as the weeks go on.

First of all a shout out to the Mindfulness App, which has turned out to be a helpful tool – one that I would recommend to any first-timer to help structure your attempt to add time for meditation and reflection into your busy schedule.

The app offers easy, portable access to both guided and silent meditations of various lengths. As a novice, guided meditations helped me get the hang of things by providing an audible narrative providing direction and a clear point of focus. The mind will always wander during meditation – even for seasoned practitioners, I’m told. However, I’m finding breaks in focus are less frequent when I have specific instructions to concentrate on.

Taking an incremental approach to the length of sessions has also helped me. I’ve worked my way up through about ten short sittings, first three, then five, then fifteen minutes in length. Like going to the gym, this helps gradually build mental skill and stamina.

At the start of each guided meditation, I’m directed to assume a comfortable position, in a state wakefulness and presence. That first instruction always reminds me that, while therapeutic, mindfulness is by no means about resting, tuning out or escaping. On the contrary, during the best moments of my practice, I enjoy a level of increased awareness that I rarely experience when I’m in ‘doing’ mode.

Most of us live on autopilot, disconnected from our bodies, our breath, and our thoughts. During meditation, I’m asked to quietly observe these processes, and it’s surprising how much there is to see. In fact, ten short sessions have shown me both how shallow my normal breathing is and how much unnecessary tension I carry in my body. I’ve learned that merely dropping the breath can help replenish the body, just as physical tension, brought on by churning thoughts, can deplete it.

Mindfulness is also teaching patience. The guided meditation always emphasizes a gentle acceptance whatever may arise. Rather than responding in frustration each time my mind wanders (and as a beginner, my concentration often falters). As my guide gently advises, “when the attention starts to wander towards thoughts, fantasies, plans, memories, worries – just notice where it is gone, then gently and deliberately bring the attention back to focus on the breath.” A truism, yes, but it is about the journey and not the destination. It’s about doing it every day, not about perfection.

I’m encouraged enough to keep at it. And armed with this helpful advice from aboutmeditation.com, I think I can avoid the pitfalls that get in the way for beginners.

On a final note, one more thing that’s been a great help – I’ve discovered my workplace has a quiet room, so it’s easy to find fifteen minutes during a lunch break to recharge and start the afternoon with a refreshed sense of attention. More on the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace in later posts, but here’s an article from HRM Canada on the corporate quiet room phenomenon.

In the coming weeks, moving up to thirty-minute sessions, in complete silence.

Photo credit: ‘Meditation Sticker (Flickr)‘ by Sanne Schijnt, CC BY 2.0.